No Hee Hee, Ha Ha, For Me Joel Stein.

I suppose when you come across a writer so engulfed in snark, so above the tide, so cutting edge that it is almost impossible to touch their well thought out and clearly obvious humor that you find yourself paused, unable to dissect with the surgical precision of cutting analysis you have come to expect of Feministing. I mean, you should at least be able to stop and acknowledge that the author was kind of intelligent, had a strong point of view or made you LOL.

I really think Joel Stein was hoping he would get that kind of reaction about his column in this week’s TIME about his painful realization that his town was overrun by “Indians,” a deeply sad look into his psyche, almost reminiscent of the Michael Richard’s moment, only Stein was writing…so you would think he had more time to do just that. There are few things sadder than reading a writer that is so caught up in their own ego, racism and bad writing that they don’t even have the foresight to see how poorly their piece has not only come across, but would be received. Why did Time chose to run this?

So what has got me up at 830am writing all kinds of mean things about some writer I don’t even read? Let’s take a look at Stein’s meditation on life in Edison, NJ.

For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.
Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians “dot heads.” One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to “go home to India.” In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.
Unlike some of my friends in the 1980s, I liked a lot of things about the way my town changed: far better restaurants, friends dorky enough to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, restaurant owners who didn’t card us because all white people look old. But sometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.

I don’t even have to be South Asian to be offended by this, but let’s just say, being South Asian adds a little extra bit of annoyance for me since “dothead” was definitely the most benign of the racial slurs I have been called. As a growing population that has been consistently made fun of by mainstream media, policed both before and more so after 9/11, ignored, strategically propped up as a model minority and a community that provides so much of the labor, both working class and white collar, at statistically lower income rates than the average American, you would think Stein could do us a solid by noting some of that. As opposed to suggesting that the main malaise of the growing South Asian population in the United States as a series of cultural disruptions, annoyances, badly thought out racial slurs and smelly food. All of which interrupted his ability to claim his white authentic identity as it ties into his hometown.

How about this for a meditation on the “OMG so funneh” of growing up in the US? Growing up South Asian in the United States around a bunch of racists was a really challenging experience for me and my South Asian friends and family. We were constantly compared to the ethnic minorities around us, ignored in the classroom except for the offhand comment about how we were inherently smart and good at school (unless you weren’t, then it was in the special class with all the other minorities for you!) and we could never live down being a nerd, unless we assimilated so hardcore that the only thing that was left “authentically Indian” about us was our hair.

So while Stein is pissed that when he goes home to Edison (from his Cheslea home that is surrounded by “transvestite hookers”–see he is just pure vile), and tries to give a snarky commentary about a rather phenomenal situation, he makes it all about himself, totally alienating several generations of immigrants that have worked to build not only their own communities, but the very bedrock of US society. And that is just not that funny.

What is most telling in this piece outside of Stein’s outstanding inability to tell good jokes is that the South Asian community is having an identity crisis in the mainstream media (just think back to the How to Date an Indian fiasco). South Asians are a growing minority and have finally made it into the national spotlight in the last 10 years, but because there is so little written about us before, we have always been whatever someone else wants us to be in that moment. As a result, there is no “best practice” in talking about South Asians and it is OK to say horrendously offensive and uncomplicated stories about us with little to no accountability. We haven’t made the news media with any other breaking news that actually deals with the reality of our lives in the United States, so we are not taken seriously and we are considered “harmless,” (unless in an airport, then duck and cover fam). Desis have thus far been the butt of jokes or a cultural oasis of things to point at and gush or a target for racism both institutional and in foul attempts at comedy.

Let’s stop that right now. Email the editors at TIME and let them know this type of writing is totally unacceptable for a magazine that is patronized by South Asians and considered an industry standard for weekly news. Plus, my dad has been reading TIME since 1970, I think they owe him an apology!

Sepia Mutiny has more.

Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    My therapist is Indian and I remember when in setting up our first session how reluctant she was to identify herself as such. Perhaps she felt that I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable with a therapist who wasn’t Caucasian. We’ve never really talked about this before, and there’s really no reason we should, but I am curious to know what her take on this story would be.
    I have a feeling that her own opinions would probably be much in line with yours.

  • DeafBrownTrash

    thanks, Samhita, for writing this. I read this article last night and was enraged. I was waiting for one of my fave blogs (Feministing, Racialicious, Sepia Mutiny, Angry Asian Man, etc) to comment on this.
    To demonstrate to white people who would like to comment on my outrage over this article: “it’s just a joke, why do you have to be so offended over everything. Get over it.” how would you feel if I write an article crying about how my parents’ hometown in India is being overrun by too many goddamned white people? or– what if I cry about my local American hometown being overrun by too many white people, either?!?!

  • Gretel

    I don’t even know where to begin with this! But reading this line: In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor. convinces me that Stein needs a history lesson about colonialism. Or some empathy. Joking about poverty when you are a yuppie in Chelsea? Disgusting.
    I thought the excerpts you posted were completely atrocious, and then there’s this gem at the end: But if you look at the current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J.P. Stevens, which would be very creepy of you, you’ll see that, while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians. I don’t know who should be more offended: the Indian (?) (he’s assuming these people are Indian by their Facebook profiles) students or the Italian population.
    I just went to Stein’s website, and I think it speaks for itself: The fact that Time Magazine published this shows that that publication needs to stop printing. I really hope that Stein does not try to use the, “Hey, I’m not racist, I’m a Jew, how could I be racist” card, but I imagine he will.

  • Gretel

    I’m not sure what the context of her identifying herself was. Did you ask her or did she hesitantly volunteer the information? Sorry, just curious, because I’ve never had a therapist inform me of their ethnicity or race while setting up an appointment.

  • SaraLaffs

    Joel Stein is one of the reasons I cancelled my subscription to Time. Holy sh*t I can’t believe they published this! It’s just embarassing.

  • Surfin3rdWave

    I’ve always hated Joel Stein’s writing. He makes his living by being an asshole. He’s no different than Glen Beck; he just sits on the left side instead of the right.

  • Disarm33

    Very few things make my jaw drop, but the blatant racism in this column managed to do just that. How on Earth would anyone think this is funny? How could any editor in their right mind think that this is ok to publish? Maybe I overestimate human decency. But seriously, what the hell?

  • Shadowen

    To quote the internet:
    what is this i dont even

  • krod

    Wow. I figured the excerpt must have covered it, but it’s even worse than it sounds. Even more painful than the blatantly racist elements are his attempts to be funny that fail so ridiculously that on a comedic level I can’t help but feel embarrassed for him. He attempts to point out some supposed irony that LBJ invited Asians into the country (with immigration laws) and attacked them at the same time (Vietnam War). Does he even know that “Asia” has more than one country and it is not just a singular entity that we can hilariously fail to simultaneously attack and embrace? I went to his website and sent him an email, I hope everyone else does too!

  • Auriane

    Stein’s as tired as a Seth McFarlane fart in a windowless room. When did this kind of stuff become popular, and why? I love comedy, but this ain’t it.

  • Tapati

    The only thing that surprises me about this is that Time published it. I’ve been seeing similar sentiments in the SF Bay Area lately, creeping into yelp reviews and other web page comments. Everybody seems to be complaining about Indians and things like the smell of the food in apartment buildings, body odor (?), the lack of respect for personal space, and so on. Wow. This is supposed to be such a liberal area and I’ve been so shocked to read this kind of blatant ignorance and prejudice HERE. I know prejudice and racism are represented everywhere but I guess my circle of friends here led me to believe it wasn’t so widespread in our area.
    Everyone seems to forget that once upon a time, their families came here and everyone thought they were weird, smelled funny, ate odd things, and were going to destroy the fabric of America. In the end, our culture has only grown richer.
    I, too, went back to my hometown. I found it much poorer and the population shrank by several thousand. No immigrants have moved in to keep the businesses going with their purchases or to start businesses of their own. Stein should be happy his home town isn’t dying.

  • stellarose

    I’m from Edison originally as well and I grew up knowing Joel Stein (he’s 5 or 6 years older than me) and certainly watching the demographic transformation he describes, so when I first saw the article I approached it with a sympathetic attitude. But I must say I too found it extremely offensive, even giving hom the beneift of the doubt. The worst part about the article is that there was in fact a good deal of racism directed at the south asian immigrants to Edison when their numbers first started growing in the early 90s…its not something to joke about, ever…and certainly not less than 20 years after the events.
    I was also really shocked to read this coming from Joel, since I think all but the hardest-nosed racists in Edison think the demographic shift was a positive one for the town as a town. Downtown Iselin New Jersey (what feels like the center of south asian shopping and food culture in the area) went from a run-down, dying downtown to a busling commercial district that I understand is now a nation-wide shopping destination. Property values I am sure have gone up. And instead of the only having disgusting chain stores (like the Pizza Hut Stein mentions) there are now tons of local businesses. A shocking article on many levels, especially for someone who know the backstory like I do…

  • dark_morgaine

    You are absolutely right. How many times have white people acted affronted by even a slight reference to other cultures being good or possibly superior? One could argue that the whole continent has been overrun with white people, who after all are the children of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, the term “white” includes all these people now.
    Remember Sotomayor’s “wise Latina woman” comment? Everybody flipped out at the thought that brown-skinned woman could know law better than a white man.
    And as for mockeries of Hinduism, it’s a bit rich of Christians to mock the oldest religion in the world. (Yes, Hinduism is older than Judaism, get over it!)

  • dark_morgaine

    It seems to me that there is a strong white past time of blaming minority races for the “degradation of society” in their once-white(empahsis on WHITE)-picket-fence lives in small towns. I graduated from high school a year ago, and already I hear things about the gang problem at my old alma mater being so bad because of all the supposed “Mexican” gangs. I put Mexican in quotes there because people in my area still use “Mexican” as short-hand for Latin@. My own neighborhood has become more multicultural in a lot of ways, and I embrace it!
    I knew a few Indians growing up. Just like I knew a few African Americans, a few East Asians, a few Jews, a few Hispanics, etc. I don’t think I was harmed in any way by interacting with people who have different skin and hair and culture than me. It made me aware of differences, and similarities. The latter are the most important.

  • Anne Marie

    He’s a class act.
    “Didn’t meant to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing”

  • Chris

    “he just sits on the left side instead of the right.”
    Plenty of loathsome blowhards make their living by being the “token left” but not being very progressive at all.
    It’s as if they vote and speak more because of their career than because they’ve come to any realizations or logical choice.

  • Anonymous

    yep. my sentiments exactly.

  • Brianna G

    My insurance provider tells me the gender and race of all potential therapists, except where they don’t offer it (which is rare). I asked my therapist about it and she commented that as a white Anglo-Saxon woman, she has had some patients who were very uncomfortable with her race and she referred them to other therapists. I suspect some therapists do offer that information because they accept that it’s better to make sure the patient is comfortable, racist/sexist or not, than to worry about social implications.

  • Jessica Lee

    WTF?! That comment just makes him look like an idiot. So because someone is Indian, they have to think just like Gandhi? I laugh, but only because it’s incredibly stupid.

  • TB

    Email and tell them how racist and offensive, not to mention utterly thoughtless, this column is, and how insulting it is that their editors approved this. I am seriously appalled at this piece.

  • dark_morgaine

    Because Gandhi is the only famous Indian ever and he espoused the values of all Indians everywhere. Riiiight.

  • Hailey

    ugh…his writing has always annoyed me but this is just disgusting.

  • Anne Marie